It happened on my second day in Tehran. As I ambled into the National Jewellery Museum for a glimpse of Iran’s crown jewels, a woman in black started gesturing at me with a burst of angry words.
My heart just stopped. Is this the notorious Iranian morality police?
My tour guide rushed over with a tight smile.
“She says you have your sweater on wrong, it’s inside-out.”
“It’s the fashion,” I mumbled, quickly walking away.
Safety – especially from the Gasht-e Ershad, the agency enforcing Iran’s Islamic code of conduct – is a big concern for travellers to Iran. But as I learnt on my 10-day trip, tourists are more likely to be accosted by the fashion police than the morality police.
Forget the screaming negative headlines – as you will quickly discover, the Islamic republic is not quite the scary, fanatical backwater you think.
In fact, it is easy to feel safe and welcomed there.
Its Supreme Leader may be staring coldly down at you from the rigid murals and billboards, but the people on the streets are quick to greet you warmly and ask for a selfie together or invite you for tea.
It is not to say that the strict Islamic regulations are a myth – women have to wear a hijab (headscarf) and cover their figure in public. At some holy sites, you might even be asked to don the traditional long black veil called chador (which literally means “tent” in Persian).
But on the streets of Tehran and some of the big cities, it is common to see Iranian women strutting around in trendy tight-fitting garb with dyed tresses peeking out of their colourful headscarves as they rebelliously find fashionable interpretations of the state’s strict dress code.
And while public displays of affection between men and women are a no-no, almost no place is segregated. One of the few “places” where men and women are kept apart is the public transport, where women have a separate entrance and compartment on city buses and the Tehran Metro.
The fascinating socio-political paradoxes aside, what makes Iran remarkable is its historical heritage, and how the religious regime has staunchly protected it.
One of the oldest civilisations in the world, Iran is home to 19 Unesco World Heritage sites with a rich legacy of art, culture and architecture dating back some three millennia.
My whirlwind exploration of this mesmerising heritage started at the Golestan Palace in Tehran. The muted façade of the 400-year-old royal complex is underwhelming, but as soon as you walk in, its grandiose opulence will hit you. Talar-i-Ayaneh (Hall of Mirrors), for one, is unforgettable with its blinding shattered-mirror mosaic walls and ceiling. One would think living with your reflections is unnerving, but apparently the mirrors served a practical purpose – they kept the assassins away.
The newer Niavaran Palace gives a different insight into Iran’s past – it exhibits the excesses of the last Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, as if to justify the 1979 Islamic Revolution that sent him and his family into exile. Maybe it was the winter cold, but an eerie chill swept down my spine as I walked through the rooms showcasing the royal family’s abandoned possessions.
This mesh of the extravagant and the austere; the traditional and the modern; and the Islamic and the pre-Islamic of Iran is evident even as you move out of Tehran.
It cannot be more obvious than at the Imam Square in Esfahan, once Iran’s capital under the Safavid Dynasty. Surrounded by intricately designed palaces and mosques, the public square used to host polo matches for the ancient kings’ entertainment. Today, the Imam Square is a popular hangout for the ordinary Esfahan folks who love to picnic and read poetry on the grassy turf.
But the wintry air was biting when we were there, so we quickly popped into the labyrinthine Bazar-e Bozorg nearby to hunt for souvenirs and browse in the workshops where the traders make their wares, from traditional copper pots and glass trinkets, to miniature paintings and printed tablecloths.
While I had vowed to resist the temptation of lugging home one of the famed Persian carpets, I could not resist the calls of the carpet sellers. So, I let myself be dragged into one carpet shop and surrendered to their “1,001 tales of flying carpets” over hot tea … Leaving without buying was awkward but the experience was definitely worth it.
If the haggling is not for you, there are many chaikhaneh (teahouses) around where you can sip your spiced tea and suck on nabat (traditional rock sugar). Find, if you can in the market maze, the kooky Azadegan Teahouse. The metal pots, lanterns and other knick-knacks hanging from its ceiling give Azadegan’s tea and snacks an extra oomph.
After soothing tea, nothing is more invigorating than walking across the wondrous Si-o-seh pol bridge to the leafy Armenian Christian quarter Jolfa, where the Esfahan Music Museum makes an interesting stop with its extensive collection of traditional instruments. We even got serenaded with traditional Persian love songs after our guided tour!
As the Safavids were credited for the spread of Shia Islam, Esfahan is an ideal place to soak in the distinctive blue-tile mosaic design of Iran’s Islamic architecture.
I did wonder if blue tiles are – as magnificent as they are – all there is to Persian mosques. I found the answer in Shiraz, another former capital city. Its Nasir al Mulk mosque is known as the pink mosque because its pink and red tiles radiate a dazzling rosy hue around the main prayer room when sunlight shines through its stained glass windows.
But despite its attractions, and Shiraz has many, most travel to the southern city to get to Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Achaemenid Empire.
It is said that the Greek conqueror Alexander (the “not Great”, from Iranians’ perspective) had torched most of Persepolis in a drunken fit, but the ruins are still breathtaking.
The tomb of Cyrus the Great at nearby Pasargadae completed my “lesson” on this ancient Persian civilisation. Cyrus is dubbed the “Father of Human Rights” and, to the current theocratic government’s chagrin, many Iranians now hold annual protests at his tomb.
I find Iran’s preservation of their pre-Islamic heritage absolutely riveting, and my intrigue only grew when I got to the desert town of Yazd, considered by many to be the “Zoroastrian HQ”.
Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, is said to be founded in Iran. One of its distinct facets is its “decontamination ceremony” for the dead – their bodies are left in a simple tower known as dakhmeh or tower of silence for vultures to pick clean to the bones.
The dakhmeh at the hilly edge of Yazd will transport you back to those gory times, especially if you go there after visiting the surreal Fire Temple, where the flame allegedly has been burning for over 1,500 years.
Yazd’s old town, a pit stop during the old Silk Road days, is also captivating with its badgirs (windtowers) on sun-dried mud-brick houses set around narrow, winding lanes.
All the guidebooks say the skyline is best seen from the rooftop, something I unfortunately didn’t get to do as I had to rush to Kashan, another old town with traditional houses, gardens and hammam (bath houses) that should be explored from the rooftops. As I looked out across the quaint skyline, it struck me – I had barely scratched the surface of what this diverse country has to offer.
I guess I just have to come back.
This media trip was sponsored by Thai Airways. Thai Airways flies from Kuala Lumpur to Tehran (via Bangkok) four times a week.